Paul Braithwaite talks to Dave Stephens, general manager of BSRIA’s Instrument Solutions division, which hires, sells and calibrates instruments used by the building services industry
THERE are not enough businesses within the building services industry which work on trust these days, but BSRIA’s Instrument Solutions hire business does just that.
“When consultants or contractors phone our sales people, often they need an instrument immediately perhaps because theirs is broken or lost,” says Dave Stephens, general manager of the division.
If so, the instrument ordered will be with them next day.
Dave was appointed general manager of Instrument Solutions in 1990 when he joined BSRIA from a company which was part of the Invensys Group
Then iInstrument Solutions was a small hire business, turning over £250,000 a year. Dave’s job, initially, was to develop the hire business and double the turnover.
Things have changed in the 17 years in-between.
Turnover for Instrument Solutions is £2.3million, half of which comes from the hire business. The other half comes from sales of instruments and calibration services.
Turnover and profit have risen every year since since his arrival.
However, he identified that the rental business would not generate the growth needed, hence the move into the product sales and calibration services
“When I arrived here, one of my first priorities was to put in place a quality system.”
Dave says he operated under various quality schemes in his previous company and wanted them in place at Instrument Solutions as quickly as possible and, anyway, the major contracting companies would want to deal only with suppliers which had ISO9000 quality systems in place.
“We worked very hard at obtaining ISO9000 registration and in doing so had to invest heavily in new rental equipment and new calibration equipment.”
In this way, the company ensured that whenever a piece of equipment went out on hire it was fit for purpose.
“That is key to our business. Whatever goes out of the door has a certificate of conformity which is dedicated to that particular instrument.”
And Dave insists: “Everything is tested before it goes out on hire.”
There was a spin-off from buying the new calibration equipment: Instrument Solutions was able to offer a calibration service to clients, as well as calibrating the instruments for its own hire business.
Six years ago the company decided it would develop further and move into the instrument sales business.
“It was what customers had been asking for,” maintains Dave. “Many customers were renting from us, we were calibrating their instruments and we had built up relationships with them. It made sense to buy through us.”
Further, because of the company’s independence – under the BSRIA banner – it did not sign up an exclusive arrangement with any manufacturer of instrumentation.
“We give customers a choice.”
And of course, with the hire business, it is a case of try-before-you-buy so that clients can be sure they have the right instrument for the job.
If customers want help and advice, Dave says: “we will give them the benefit of our experience”.
But markets change – and quickly.
For instance, Instrument Solutions used to have a good rental business for thermal image cameras.
These retailed at around £30,000, so only a company which used them regularly would contemplate buying one.
The rental – at £1,000 a week – was cost-effective for both company and client.
Now, there are thermal imaging cameras on the market, at one tenth of that price and even companies which used them only occasionally, often buy rather than rent.
“These low cost cameras are virtually a ‘tool-box’ item now and form part of our sales stock”.
Instrument Solutions will also undertake minor repairs.
And, if it cannot repair the instrument and it has to go back to the supplier, then a replacement can be supplied through the hire part of the operation so that clients can carry on working.
The business has built up a working relationship with all its suppliers and with 30 other calibration businesses and can pass on any work which is outside of its scope.
BSRIA Instrument Solutions has UKAS accreditation for temperature, pressure, electrical power and volume flow and the company is looking to extend this scope.
“To be considered a respectable calibration house, UKAS accreditation is essential. It is the top-end of accreditation and while it may not be necessary for most of building services’ instrumentation, it is necessary for the pharmaceutical industry and, in any case, shows our commitment to accuracy for our instrumentation.”
It also shows that while the core marketplace is building services – measuring anything you want to measure inside the building fabric – there are other sectors such as clean-room validation and pharmaceuticals which we service.”
And service and efficiency is very much part of BSRIA Instrument Solutions ethos Dedicated software packages are used in each of the three sectors of the business.
For instance, the hire section has a system which keeps track of the instruments; who has them; when they should be returned etc.
“Fast service is what most of our customers need.
“Much of the work we do with regular customers does not have a purchase order. Obviously there are major construction companies which will deal only when there is a purchase order but a lot of business comes from a mobile phone.”
The product is couriered out on an overnight service (or same day into London).
And in spite of the fact that delivery is often to a construction site, the courier still manages to find the addressee.
The blower door went on the road to explain to housebuilders that they would have to test dwelling for air tightness
As new products become available, stock is updated. BSRIA Instrument Solutions has about £2million worth of equipment for hire.
And if equipment is broken?
“Most people are honest – ‘I’m sorry, I over-pressurised it’ – we try to deal with customers in an amicable way, although some try to fix instruments themselves, and don’t always get it right. But that’s engineers for you,” laughs Dave.
Also, if a client phones in for a product which is not in the hire range, then the company investigates it and, if there is potential, will add it to the range.
The rental stock consists of 1,600 main items with another 1,200 accessories such as probes, pressure transducers or sensors, extension leads, and cables.
It also offers a package solution whereby it will supply a complete package, for a building or facilities project, configure it all, calibrate it and ship it.
Because of the work involved it may take two to three days to arrange.
Further, some companies, realising that BSRIA has the technical expertise, will ask BSRIA staff to install and monitor the instruments – and here the company links into the other BSRIA sections.
The links are always there.
For instance, when Instrument Solutions introduced blower doors for domestic house builders, it worked with BSRIA colleagues to take a roadshow to builders explaining their use in air tightness in domestic dwellings.
“When we saw the door at a German show, we decided to stock it, both in the hire business and for sale.
“It was a case of being at the forefront of new technology and we had to go to house builders and explain why they would want this apparatus.
“We realised that when Part L1 of the Building Regulations came into force, house builders would have to test dwellings for air tightness and leakage.
Here, again, the units can be hired, bought or BSRIA experts will do the tests for the builder.
There are other ways of finding new products.
Because it is BSRIA, suppliers take their new products to Instrument Solutions to be checked and, hopefully, added to the range.
Interestingly, says Dave, sometimes when these are checked, they do not measure up and it is back to the drawing board.
Nevertheless, BSRIA is always on the lookout for new products to hire and sell.
Dave is adamant the future is rosy, with all to play for.
“There is plenty of growth still to come from our existing businesses especially our packages, installation and monitoring services.”
And it is still a matter of trust, a trust that Dave and his staff want to continue and foster.
More than just research
BSRIA is known throughout the building services industry for its research, test and consultancy services.
However, there is also a well established business providing a complete instrumentation Solution.